Anti-normalization: a necessary part of BDS-campaigning ~ by @docjazzmusic

10 October 2011  ||  Dr. Tariq Shadid | 

by Doc Jazz – Some people have been wondering why the word ‘normalization’ is being used by pro-Palestine movements more and more frequently. Many seem to be puzzled by this word, not knowing exactly what is meant by it. What probably strikes them the most is that this expression, based on the word ‘normal’ which ordinarily has a positive connotation, is used in this context as something that is looked down upon or even despised. It therefore seems important to clarify what it means, why it is seen as negative, and what its role is in the oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people.


Definition and forms of normalization

‘Normalization’ in the Palestinian context means: treating the Zionist state as if it is a ‘normal’ country like any other, instead of an illegitimate settler colony built on stolen land. It is mostly applied when Arab states, nations or people engage in social, economic, cultural or political relationships with ‘Israel’. The negative context of this word is based on the fact that it is a widely held view in the Arab world that this colonialist and racist state should be boycotted, isolated and pressured, instead of allowing it to prosper in an environment of normality. In Arabic, this expression is called ‘ta6bee3’.

We are living in a time when normalization is rampant, as can be illustrated by various examples. Political normalization is most obvious in the case of Egypt and Jordan, which are the only two Arab countries to have signed a peace treaty with the Zionist state and which openly engage in political and economic interactions. In some of the other Arab nations there are examples where normalization happens more covertly or less outspokenly, and mainly takes the form of economic and strategic ties.

These two types of normalization are tied in with geopolitics, and take place on the level of governments. However, the other types are a matter for ordinary people and their societal organizations. In this context one can think of performing arts, collaboration between universities, sports, academic interactions and exchanges, and other situations in which the involvement of Israeli citizens is deemed acceptable.

Who are the ‘normalizers’?

With the globalization of the call for the boycott of the Zionist state, and the increasing effort of people in many countries around the world to popularize BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), the word ‘normalization’ has been finding its way to debates and discussions held outside of the Arab world. The difference outside of the Middle East is mainly that the governments of most of those nations have already long ‘normalized’ their relations with ‘Israel’. Because of this, the word loses some of its meaning in the international context, but not necessarily all.

In our modern times, the Western World is home to an increasing number of Muslims and people of Arab descent. From their background, they are expected to have more knowledge about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and to have an automatic solidarity with the Palestinians living under occupation and persecution. This usually makes sense, because unlike the indigenous populations of the West who are brainwashed by their own media, they cannot claim ignorance of the Palestinian ordeal as a pretext for ignoring their tragedy. The same goes for some Arab publicists who live in the Arab world, but use English mainly to propagate their ideas, thus engaging a Western audience with their views. When these people express acceptance of Zionism or Zionists, they also earn themselves a qualification as ‘normalizers’.

Also, as the BDS-movement continues to grow, aiming to create a worldwide boycott of the Zionist state in the same fashion as that which brought down South African Apartheid in the eighties, the expression can be applied to any world citizens who distance themselves from BDS and continue to legitimize Israel in a variety of venues, like that of the arts, that of academic cooperation, or on a level of trade and business.

Not always black and white

One should be careful not to label things as ‘normalization’ too indiscriminately. There are situations in which there is an almost inevitable necessity for engagement with the Zionist oppressor. A good example of this exists among Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories who would suffer unemployment unless they worked for Israeli companies, a situation which is also a direct result of the occupation. It also doesn’t seem fair to use the word ‘normalization’ when it comes to Palestinians who carry Israeli citizenship. There is a credible argument to be made that their only choice in counteracting the ongoing policy of institutionalized Israeli discrimination against them, is by participating as fully in society as possible.

However, when the possibility for boycotting and isolating does exist, and is deliberately shunned, the label of ‘normalization’ is in order. Is there, for instance, a specific necessity for a university in the West Bank to engage in exchange programs with an Israeli university? Is there an absolute and irreplaceable need for an Arab performing artist to schedule performances in the state of ‘Israel’, and try to gain popularity among its citizens? Is it necessary for migrant organizations in the Western world to forge ties and cooperations with Zionist representatives of the Jewish communities there? In all these examples, the obvious answer is ‘no’. These are therefore examples of normalization, and can easily become subjects for heated inter-Arab discussion.


When you engage in discussions with those who engage in normalization, there is a variety of responses. There are die-hard opportunists among them; being pro-Israel happens to be lucrative in a world that is dominated by a Western-oriented market. Based on this, you will for instance find journalists adapting their writing and their reporting to Zionist interests. You will find travel agencies adapting their maps and portraying the West Bank and Gaza as parts of the Zionist state. You will find artists of Arab origin organizing concert performances in Tel Aviv. There are also seemingly more innocent examples: thus, you will sometimes find Palestinians living in the West announcing on their Facebook profile that they went to visit their family in ‘Israel’.

But there are also those who simply do not believe in the potential effectiveness of BDS, including the academic and cultural boycott. They often contend that they are ‘bridge-builders’ who have the power to defuse tensions between peoples, and thereby can contribute to an atmosphere of ‘mutual understanding and respect’. In many cases these people have little knowledge of the political situation, and tend to underestimate the true nature of the Zionist project. They underestimate its racism, and its inherently violent behavior. Despite well over 60 years of the hard evidence of their continuous acts of oppression, expulsion and expansionism, in the views of these people the Zionists are apparently still perceived as if they were having the best of intentions.

Dangers of normalization

In both styles of normalization that are described above, those who engage in it tend to downplay the negative role they are playing when they act this way. BDS is a vital and essential part of Palestinian non-violent resistance. Since it is hardly thinkable that those who engage in normalization would advocate armed struggle against ‘Israel’, by positioning themselves in opposition to BDS, the message they are sending is that Palestinians should not be resisting at all.

In fact, normalization is even worse than only this. While the BDS movement is trying to build pressure upon ‘Israel’ to end its ongoing practices of land theft, racism and ethnic cleansing, normalizers are providing them with breathing space that helps them to withstand this pressure. It is therefore no wonder that the Zionist state usually treasures the normalizers, and treats them with the utmost respect. Acts of normalization, whether on the political, economical, cultural, social or academic level, each in their own way undermine the tireless efforts of the BDS movement.

How to deal with it

In order for boycott strategies to be effective, serious efforts must therefore also be put in to counter normalization. In some cases, this can be done by reasoning, and convincing normalizers that their actions are a form of aiding and sustaining the occupation. We have to realize that some of these acts are given in by the misguided belief that ‘reaching out to the other side’ is an act of ‘peace’. Those who think this way, fail to see that this way of thinking only makes sense in a situation where the two opposing parties are of comparable strength, and are not applicable when the reality is that one of the two overwhelms the other by a massive advantage in military force, economic relations and political clout with the world’s superpowers. On top of this, this way of thinking nullifies the value of justice by treating both sides as equally guilty, a thought which in itself defies the very principles of common sense and international law.

If reasoning and convincing fails to yield results, ‘naming and shaming’ becomes a necessity. As long as normalizers don’t feel any heat from their actions, they will continue to bask in the financial and other advantages of pleasing the powerful. The fact that mass media usually promotes them heavily means that their noxious effect also receives disproportionately large exposure, which in turn has a negative educational effect upon the masses, further obstructing efforts to popularize BDS campaigns, and reducing their success.

Hopefully, it has been illustrated in the above that no BDS campaign can be truly complete without its necessary anti-normalization efforts. Although this task has the quite unpleasant aspect of being aimed mainly at those standing at one’s own side of the fence, one would be ‘mopping while the faucets are open’ as a saying in the Dutch language has it, if these efforts would be omitted. It is therefore upon all of us to help create awareness about normalization, and to make sure that it becomes a part of the vocabulary and understanding of all those who are active in the struggle for Palestinian liberation and independence.


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